The presidential elections and the war in Iraq have grabbed most of the headlines this year. However, the achievements of South Asian Americans in many diverse fields have not gone unnoticed. They continue to push the envelope in politics, academia, sports, and the arts. They are making films, advocating for civil liberties, and helping to keep the environment clean. Here are some desis who made extraordinary contributions in 2004.

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An Accent on Suspensef68a569bf2263da517e98edd9d876f77-14

Nothing he has made since has quite matched the block-buster power of his 1999 film The Sixth Sense but Manoj Night Shyamalan’s films remain among Hollywood’s most anticipated. This year’s The Village was no exception. When the film came out in July, Shyamalan was on Good Morning America, taking questions from Joel Siegel, and his Q&A promoting the film was simultaneously broadcast to 50 theaters across the nation.

This has been quite a long journey for the Madras-born director, the son of doctors, who grew up in Philadelphia. Shyamalan, who idolized Steven Spielberg, had made 45 home movies by the age of 17. His first feature Praying with Anger (1992) did the festival circuit and is incidentally the only one that is really about his Indian roots. He followed up The Sixth Sense with Unbreakable and Signs.

While his fans are always looking out for the “twist-in-the-tail” endings, reviews have been more mixed. The Village was described by Rex Reed of the New York Observer as “another mediocre lunacy from the overrated M. Night Shyamalan.” But Shyamalan says he doesn’t care if others think he is formulaic. “The accent I speak in as a director is suspense,” he said in a recent interview.

He received a reported $5 million from Disney—for Signs, making him the highest-paid screenwriter in Hollywood at the time. And he remains the only Indian-American name with enough cachet to still make mainstream America fork over $10 at the movie theater no matter what movie he makes or who stars in it. His films have grossed more than $1.3 billion globally; The Village made $50.7 million on its opening weekend.

Next, Shyamalan is known to be taking a break from writing his own stories while he films Yann Martel’s acclaimed novel The Life of Pi.

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f68a569bf2263da517e98edd9d876f77-2Mr. Jindal Goes to Washington

“ I am going to Congress on a mission,” Republican Bobby Jindal told jubilant supporters after coasting to an easy victory in Louisiana’s District 1 congressional election Nov. 2. He won 78 percent of the vote. “You will not see me sitting quietly and warming a chair,” he said. “I am going to Washington to solve problems for Louisiana.”

After narrowly losing his bid for governor of Louisiana last year, Jindal set his sights on an open congressional seat in suburban New Orleans where, the returns of the gubernatorial race showed, he had an overwhelming lead. Jindal’s campaign won broad appeal in this conservative and white-collar district by emphasizing his Catholic faith and opposition to abortion and business taxes.

“Maybe it’s because I’m the son of immigrants who picked Louisiana over every other place in the world,” said the 33-year-lod Jindal who was born in Baton Rouge, La., “but I believe the American dream can live and thrive in our state more than any other.” Jindal is the first South Asian American elected to Congress since Dilip Singh Saund of California in 1956.

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Winning Streakf68a569bf2263da517e98edd9d876f77-16

The 2004 season has been a historic one in professional golf, and espe-cially for Vijay Singh. The Fiji-born golfer already had the momentum from last year when he bagged five titles and became the PGA Tour’s leading money winner with earnings of $7.57 million. Singh continued his winning streak this year by clinching the Pebble Beach National Pro-Am, Houston Open, HP Classic of New Orleans, and Buick Open early in the season. Then, in September he captured the Deutsche Bank Championship in Boston and surpassed Tiger Woods to become the world’s top-ranking player.

By the end of the season Singh won nine titles and became the first player in PGA Tour history to earn more than $10 million in a single season.
So what’s next for the world champ? “This is not the end,” says the 41-year-old Singh. “I’m just beginning a great career, I hope. I can’t wait to get out there and do it again.”

Known for his rigorous practice routine, Singh lives with his wife, Ardena Seth, and son, Qass Seth, 14, in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla.

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f68a569bf2263da517e98edd9d876f77-5Watching out for You

“This is the most challenging time in recent memory for civil liberties, especially for immigrant communities,” says Jayashri Srikantiah, whose work as the associate legal director of the ACLU of Northern California focused on a multidisciplinary effort to protect civil liberties and civil rights in the post-9/11 environment of what she describes as “blatant discrimination and breathtaking secrecy.”

Srikantiah filed a landmark lawsuit on behalf of a Bangladeshi American who was prohibited from flying because of his ethnicity. She also filed a class-action lawsuit challenging the secretive “no-fly” list of the Transportation Security Administration. When Middle Easterners and South Asians were called in for questioning by the government, Srikantiah and the ACLU were there with “know-your-rights” materials.

She represented the most vulnerable of immigrants such as a Korean man placed in mandatory detention for a shoplifting conviction and Southeast Asians placed in indefinite detention because they couldn’t be deported back to their original countries.

Srikantiah says she joined the Immigrants’ Rights Project at the ACLU because while clerking at the Ninth Circuit Court she noticed that the quality of representation for immigrants was often poor and “by the time someone gets into deportation hearing there are so many steps along the way a difference could have been made.” She herself is an immigrant though she was only 4 when she came to the United States.

Now, as the director of the Immigrants’ Rights Clinic at the Stanford Law School, she hopes to provide students the opportunity to get hands-on experience in representing immigrant issues.

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f68a569bf2263da517e98edd9d876f77-9G
o Mo

She started out young, outdid her abilities, and earned re-spect and accolades as a superb gymnast. However, Mohini Bhardwaj’s path to the Olympic medal stand in Athens was like an obstacle course.

In the years before 1996 she moved alone to Texas to train with Alexander Alexandrov, the former head coach of the Soviet Gymnastics Team. Living alone and leading an erratic lifestyle took its toll: she placed 10th in the 1996 Olympic tryouts. Discouraged, she moved gymnastics to the back burner.

Yet, the next year she represented the United States at the 1997 World Championships in Switzerland. Clearly, she had the potential. The motivation was missing.

Only at the end of her senior year at UCLA did it hit Bhardwaj that she missed the sport and the high energy of competition, and she decided to finish some unfinished business—make the Olympic team as a gymnast. Never mind that she was already 25, perhaps too old to be a competing gymnast.

Bhardwaj and her friends sold raffle tickets to fund her Olympic training and quest—until actress Pamela Anderson stepped in with $25,000 and the “Go Mo” war cry. The rest, as the cliché goes, is history. But the Indian-American community is proud to have a darling that dared to go where no Indian-American has gone before. And Bhardwaj has an Olympic medal to prove it.

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Giving Time and Moneyf68a569bf2263da517e98edd9d876f77-6

From Mysore to Germany to Canada to the United States, Kumar Malavalli’s journey has been a long one, spanning decades and de-grees, entrepreneurial ventures and business successes. He embarked on a goal of getting an education and wound up a millionaire. Early in his career Malavalli gained expertise in fiber channel storage systems technology. Subsequently, in 1995, he launched Brocade Communications Systems, Inc., a company that developed a family of award-winning fiber channel switches and software, and went public four years later. All along, while he was trying to set up Brocade, says Malavalli, “I had it in the back of my mind that if I was ever technologically and financially successful, I would like to give back to society, not only to my home country, but also to my adopted home country.” And that’s what he has been doing ever since.

Malavalli has long been known as an earnest social entrepreneur. He believes that education and healthcare are the two most important areas that need attention, funding, and volunteer resources. Digital Equalizer is one such project that Malavalli supports at America India Foundation (AIF). Through the use of technology, the project aims to bridge the digital divide between urban and rural India. Malavalli is also putting his efforts into Telemedicine, a project that envisions accessible and affordable healthcare to remote locations.

In addition, he volunteers advice, expertise, and time as one of the directors of TiE Silicon Valley, and as trustee of AIF and India Community Center.

What if he didn’t have the money to share as he does now? “It doesn’t have to be only financial contribution,” he says. “I would have volunteered my time.” After all, every drop in the ocean matters.

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Cutting-Edge Researcherf68a569bf2263da517e98edd9d876f77-21

From an undergraduate student at IIT Kharagpur to doctoral can-didate at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) to department head, Pradeep Khosla has been on a fast track of research and academic achievement. This year the cutting-edge researcher was appointed dean of CMU’s College of Engineering, one of the top-ranking engineering schools in the country.

Khosla, 47, came to the United States on an Inlaks Fellowship to pursue a master’s degree at CMU and stayed on to get a Ph.D. Since then he has been on the faculty of CMU, where he has authored three books and more than 300 scholarly papers. He is the Philip and Marsha Dowd Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering and Robotics and also heads the electrical and computer engineering department in the college.

“I realized that besides my research, I also enjoy building organizations and initiatives,” said Khosla in a recent interview. As dean, Khosla plans to focus on building a world-class center for cyber security, which is one of his areas of expertise. “My other initiatives would include integration of bio- and nano-sciences to build systems for computing and sensing. In education, I would like Carnegie Mellon to be the ‘go to’ place for both undergraduate and graduate students.”

Khosla lives with his wife Thespine Kavoulakis and three children, Nathan, Alex, and Nina, in Pittsburgh.

His research initiatives take him frequently to India, where he is involved in creating a Software Engineering Institute in Mumbai and a collaboration with Tata Institute of Fundamental Research on cyber security.

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With Bells on Her Feetf68a569bf2263da517e98edd9d876f77-3

It was a momentous day for kathak performing artist-teacher-choreographer Anjani Ambegaokar. On Sept. 30, 2004 the National Endowment for the Arts in Washington D.C. honored Ambegaokar with the National Heritage Fellowship. Witnessing the Capitol Hill ceremony with the other 11 honorees this year, and flanked by her daughter Amrapali on one side and husband Jagadish on the other, Ambegaokar found her eyes welling up with tears of joy.

In her mind flashed memories of her early years in the United States when she taught kathak at Columbia College in Chicago “in the morning at 8, driving in the snow …” The students would look strangely at this Indian woman wearing bells on her feet. It was the early 1970s, and the music of the film Shaft had just become popular. To draw a connection between kathak and their lives “I composed a piece to the rhythms of that music and showed them, ‘See, we can do this in kathak too, besides the stories of the little boy Krishna.’”

In 1978, Ambegaokar moved with her family to the Los Angeles area, where she established Sundar Kala Kendra Dance School. She has trained hundreds of dancers in this lively and graceful classical dance of North India. Her company, Anjani’s Kathak Dance of India, has performed and received great acclaim around the world. Ambegaokar is also a prolific choreographer who has collaborated with bharatanatyam, odissi, flamenco, jazz, and tap artists, while maintaining the integrity of the kathak dance form.

“It is a very humbling experience,” says Ambegaokar, who is the first Indian dancer to be awarded the fellowship, the nation’s highest honor in the folk and traditional arts, which includes a one-time award of $20,000. “At the same time, it is a blessing.”

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Green Queen

f68a569bf2263da517e98edd9d876f77-22Do you wince when you see food being served or packed in styrofoam? So does environmental advocate Ritu Primlani, founder of the Oakland-based non-profit Thimmakka’s Resources for Environmental Education, and she decided to do something about it.

Primlani designed and implemented an innovative program called Greening Ethnic Restaurants (GER) in the San Francisco Bay Area. The participating restaurants implement at least 60 environmental measures—like installing energy-saving light bulbs and water-conserving faucets, recycling cooking oil, serving a partially organic menu. Net result: 1,710.67 tonnes of solid waste redirected from landfills to recycling and composting, 10 million gallons of water conserved, 814,935 KwH of energy saved, 533,945 lbs of carbon dioxide prevented from being released into the atmosphere. What’s more, the 82 restaurants that have implemented GER save over $2 million while protecting the environment.

This win-win approach won Primlani the Ashoka Fellowship in recognition of the “tremendous potential” of GER. Primlani receives a three-year financial stipend of $165,000 to allow her to concentrate fully on her program. Her goal is to “green” 200 ethnic restaurants in California.

“If each and every one of us does not learn to be responsible for our environment, mankind will be known as the race that was never toilet-trained,” notes Primlani.

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He Could Have Gone to Medical School

f68a569bf2263da517e98edd9d876f77-7Young stoners might not be good role models for the model minor-ity but Kal Penn, 27, has made a giant leap in making South Asian Americans visible in popular culture. As one of the two stars in Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle, Penn suddenly catapulted out of the “ethnic film circuit” into the mainstream market. After all, the film was made by Danny Leiner, who also made Dude, Where’s My Car?

The film, about two 20-something roommates, one a Korean-American investment banker and one a medical school graduate, who get a case of the munchies after getting stoned and embark on a quest for Whitecastle burgers in New Jersey, was described by the Houston Chronicle as “a gonzo ganja comedy.”

Penn, who was born Kalpen Modi in New Jersey, might not have had to stretch too much to play Kumar. Mississippi Masala inspired him to take up acting though an aunty told him, “Are you not smart enough to go to medical school?” But as an Indian actor he had a tough time. He says, when he changed his name to Kal Penn on his resume, auditions went up 50 percent.

Penn first caught the eye of audiences playing Taj in National Lampoon’s Van Wilder. In fact, the studio described Penn and co-star John Cho as “that Indian guy from Van Wilder” and “that Asian guy from American Pie.” But desis had already embraced him in films like Where’s the Party, Yaar? and the landmark American Desi.

Penn will be seen next on screen in A Lot Like Love with Amanda Peet and Ashton Kuchner as well as Son of the Mask, Dancing in Twilight, and Suemo.

Watch out for Kal Penn. He is already ready with his Oscar acceptance speech: “I’m Kalpen Modi and there’s nothing you can do about it …”

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